A weekend interview with New Orleans school reformer Leslie Jacobs
The push is on across the country to find ways to improve failing schools. One of the nation's biggest successes has come in New Orleans, where a combination of charter schools and schools taken over by the state have shown academic growth that's almost unparalleled. The reforms were in the works before Hurricane Katrina, but the disaster accelerated the implementation. On this fifth anniversary of Katrina and the breaking of the levees, reporter Jeff Solochek spoke with Leslie Jacobs, a former member of the Louisiana state board of education who now heads Educate Now!, a non-profit dedciated to continuing reform.
I'm really interested in talking with you because the things you've done in New Orleans have been really instructive. I'm interested in knowing how you got there and what you see are the opportunities for other schools and other states around the country to emulate.
Or to learn from. Because I actually think of it as lessons learned. There are many out there that think when we use the term Recovery School District we are talking about recovery from Katrina. In fact, the Recovery School District was set up in 2003. It required a constitutional vote from the people in the state. ... Every state has its own nuances. In Louisiana prior to the passage of the constitutional amendment the state had no intervention rights, including in districts that were totally failing. And what this constitutional amendment allowed the state to do was to take failing schools away from the school districts. I say this because the model of intervention that has historically been done in this country is the state takes over a failing district. Think of New York. Chicago. Philadelphia. We in Louisiana chose not to take over the district. We chose to take the schools from the district.
In doing so, in placing them in the Recovery School District, you strip them of all contractual arrangements with the school board, which included the collective bargaining agreements. You stripped them of the oversight of the school district, which included all of their policies and procedures. You stripped them of all personnel. What the state in essence took over was the building, the students and the money to educate the students. And it got the ability to start fresh.
When you do something like that, do you look at the teachers who were in the school before? Or where do you find teachers if they're not part of the mix?
The law says that teachers in the school get priority consideration. They can be considered. But the new management is under no obligation to keep those teachers. And as a matter of fact ... I don't think any school kept a majority of them who were there. After Katrina some may have. But you go out and hire a new staff. Or you keep part of that staff if you want to. ... When the levees broke on ... there were actually five schools in the Recovery district. All of them had been chartered.
The storm hits. The levees break. The state comes in and changes the law in a way so it could take over almost all the schools. They took over all but 16 of the schools. So they kind of took a reform that was going to happen gradually and put it on steroids. We became the dog that caught the bus. So at the same time you have to rebuild a city -- I mean, you opened schools up and there were no bus drivers and no cafeteria workers and no buses and no books -- we had to turn around a chronically failing school district.
I have a question about that. All the students must have left ...
Everybody left. So the city in essence is closed from August really probably through October. Then people started coming back. One or two schools opened that fall. Really, schools opened in January. What happened is, to restart a city is hard. And it's in fits and starts. You really needed your business, your home and the school open. You could sometimes get one or two but not all three. ... Christmas break a lot of students came back. So schools opened technically for the spring semester of 06. But it really wasn't much of a school year. ... Kids have been coming back. Every year our enrollment has been growing. ...
Are you getting back the same students who were there before? Because we always hear teachers say, It's not our fault that they can't do it.
Right. Well, let's back up. I say this and some media think I'm too much of a cheerleader. Let's try this. The improvements have been astounding. But we started really bad. So we've really gone from a low F to a low C, in absolute terms. But we had been a low F for a very long time. I mean, when I went on the School Board in 1992 we were a low F. And so in three years we've moved from that low F to a low C. We've cut our performance gap with the state, for example, in fourth grade math by half and in eight grade reading by 40 percent in that three year period. ... Kids came back. Is it all the exact same children? No. But I think overwhelmingly they came back with a lot of mental health issues. I don't care if you're poor or affluent. The disruption in everyone's lives was very difficult. So in many ways the schools had a more difficult population to education then when they left.
But we had tremendous gains. When the scores come out this fall, we'll have gone from 2/3 of students at a failing school to less than 1/3 and it's the same test, same standards to judge schools. So, lessons learned. ... You have first the structural lessons. I think there is something to be said if you can take a failing school away from the district and give it a clean start. We used charters in New Orleans. Charters are not a panacea but done well, charters are powerful.
Who runs the charters? Because I've seen companies come in, and mom and pops.
In New Orleans, what you have in our state law is any nonprofit can apply to run a charter. The nonprofit can hire a for-profit. So what we have is EMO's -- education management organizations -- which tend to be for-profit. Not a lot. I think they have three schools in the city, three of the charters. You have some neighborhood groups that came together to form charters. You have KIPP, which is a charter management organization that has a national footprint. YOu have some CMO's that have grown locally, I wouldn't call them mom and pop. So we have the whole plethora. And I would say we have a number of charters that have been extremely successful, and they do not all fit in one mold.
The first thing is, if you're going to do charters, you have to do smart chartering. By that, you have to have a pretty rigorous process for how you decide if the applicant is eligible to have a charter. Our first year, only six of 44 applicants were approved. We hired the National Association of Charter School Authorizers to run, to evaluate all the proposals.
So it wasn't done by the local school boards?
Well, the school board, the state took it over. So the chartering of schools for the Recovery School District is done by our state board of education.
Number 2 is, you have to do smart chartering. A key component of that is our BESE, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, had a good process with standards and rigor. The second part of that is locally in New Orleans, local investors as well as some national donors put money up to help incubate new charter operators, give them money to do a year of planning, work on their proposal. Some of them did a competitive search to find people to run charters. So there was both organic growth as well as recruited and supported growth of charters. ... So we've got some support mechanisms in place for charters. If you talk to charters, many of them feel isolated. In New Orleans, they don't. There's a community there. And it's actually very important.
We also put in very strong measures of accountability. Charter schools have to hit a certain standard by the end of Year 4 or their charter won't be renewed. And of the charters that opened in 2006, all but one met the standard.
What happens to the students who are in the schools that are not renewed?
What will happen, I believe, is the school will not close. A new operator will come in. The state has done an RFP to see who is willing to come in and take over the school.
So smart chartering is the first framework. But once you have the school, if you pull in the school leaders, what they will tell you is driving their success is the ability to hire their own faculty. What's fascinating is in the national landscape you have all this tension and debate going on about traditional teachers trained at traditional colleges of education, and Teach for America, teachers on the alternative certification path. What's fascinating is, I pulled in a group of high-performing charters. Some were run by very traditional veteran educators who overwhelmingly had older teachers, traditionally trained, lots of experience, and some young principals and startup charters who leaned more toward Teach for America and younger teachers and alternatively certified teachers. And both were successful. But the teacher that worked really well at KIPP, for example, might not do well at one of the traditionally run schools. And the teacher at the traditionally run school would not want to be at KIPP.
So it's not like there is just one method. What is important is the alignment between the school's mission, the leadership style of that principal, and the mission and purpose of that faculty. Every single one of them said, The most important thing was their control over HR.
How much is it where the schools are different to reach different types of students?
In the Recovery District it's overwhelmingly the same type of kid. If you speak to the schools, they each think they have the most distressed children coming in. Children are two, three, four grade levels behind. In the Recovery District we are overwhelmingly African-American, like 95, 98 percent. We are overwhelmingly poor, qualifying for free and reduced lunches 85 percent. So it's not a really diverse demographic in the Recovery District schools. It's more that people have different ways they feel they can reach their child. And it's not that one is right and one is wrong. Both done well have results. But to execute on these different visions well, you have to align that faculty. You have to align the professional development.
In New Orleans pre-Katrina I could tell you, central office would say we are going to teach all fourth grade teachers XYZ. Well, it could be at Apple School they didn't really think their teachers needed XYZ, but they didn't have any choice over it. Maybe instead of teaching XYZ they wanted to focus on discipline, or their teachers weren't doing the right job in certain reading components. They didn't have that freedom that they should have.
So, is that a lesson too, that even when you have an existing school you need to be a little more flexible?
Actually, to me the lesson is, you may not want to go charter you schools, but, the superintendent of Baltimore is doing this, getting rid of the hiring and firing protections. To allow schools to hire and fire their faculty with a much greater latitude. Okay. ... If you're under a collective bargaining agreement, that often decides where a teacher is going. Tenure can pre-empt hiring and firing decisions. You have districts that still give seniority to teachers, more experienced teachers get first choice of jobs. In New Orleans there is no longer a collective bargaining agreement. Charters are exempt from the tenure law. So teachers are in that building because they have chosen to be in that building, and the principal has chosen that teacher.
So that took a change in law?
No. Charter schools in Louisiana have always been exempt from the tenure law. And when you took the school away from the school district it was no longer subject to the collective bargaining agreement.
Do school districts still have those?
School districts still are subject to tenure.
Does that need to be changed too?
I would come back to say that even if you, I mean, I for one am not a big believer in tenure any longer. Do I believe that if tenure went away, a principal might arbitrarily fire a teacher? Yes. That happens every day in the private sector. There are people who feel they were fired and they shouldn't have been. And they go and get another job. If the teacher is good, they will get another job teaching somewhere else. The protections in my mind have gone too far.
But let's be clear. A teacher who is good in one school, an effective teacher in School A ... can move to School B and no longer be effective. And vice versa. The alignment of philosophy and personalities and culture between that teacher and the school is very important.
Does the Recovery School District affect anything outside of New Orleans?
In the past few years, the Recovery School District has taken over some schools in Baton Rouge, Shreveport and a couple of other parishes.
So is this something you would recommend other states replicate? Because I look at school districts in Florida ... and they'll have three or four failing schools and the rest of them are decent to good. Nobody is going to say the whole school system needs to be overhauled.
I understand. I would tell you from a policy perspective that the Recovery School District operates outside New Orleans in two ways. ... I couldn't tell you which way would be better. Way No. 1 is to actually take the school from the district. To do that you need to see do you have someone, a quality charter school ready to step up and run that school. To take over a failing school and turn it around is hard work. Is someone willing to do that and willing to put the charter proposal together who has the skills to do that task?
If not, the other method that the state issued with the Recovery School District is instead of taking over the school, if the district is willing to enter into a memorandum of understanding, the state won't take the school over. It will stay under the district's oversight. But as part of that memorandum of understanding there's alignment of the faculty, you're going to put the resources into the school, let us see what the curriculum is that you're doing. It allows the superintendent and the board to make changes in the school that otherwise the collective bargaining agreement or the political will might not be there to do it, or allow it. But they'd rather do it than have the state take the school over. ....
Have you had problems finding people to take the schools?
Yes. Absolutely. Pre-Katrina there were far more than five schools eligible for takeover, but we only had five quality charter applicants be approved. ...
That seems to be a huge barrier.
It is. If a community wants this, they have to work it. But I wouldn't want the challenge to overshadow that there is a lot that can be done within the traditionally organized district. You can push the autonomy, decision making, ability to hire and fire staff down to the school level even if you're a traditional school district.
So, treat them like a charter school even though they're not.
Correct. Because part of the challenge to me in America is the whole concept that we have to have a centralized school system. Schools are almost like widgets. And if a district for example is going to participate in Teach for America, those teachers are assigned whether the principal embraces that concept or not. A district will pick a curriculum whether it plays into the strengths of the faculty and principal or not. There isn't one curriculum. There isn't one method of preparing teachers that works. Where is the flexibility to allow the faculty, the educators in the school, to have that ownership and buy in?
But it's more than that. I had a principal say choice is important, and she wasn't talking about student choice. She had some teachers complaining about something she was going to do, and she told them, Look, you chose to be here and if you don't like what I'm doing, go to another school. They quit complaining. Whereas in a traditional system they would complain and undermine that principal and there would be nothing the principal could do about it. ...
Do you think you needed to have, and I hate to say it this way, a disaster to make these things really take hold?
I think it would have happened in New Orleans without the levee break. But it would have taken a long time. Again, there were five schools in the Recovery district, and I think it would have grown every year. But it would have never happened this quickly.
I hope other districts never have to find out that way.
Me too. But that's why I think the challenge for me is people look at the radical transformation that has taken place and say, Well you never could have done it without Hurricane Katrina, and we don't have a Katrina so where's the next model we should look at? And what this rapid change allowed us to do is get these reforms in place faster, so people could look at them. But just because we could get them in place faster because our entire community was disrupted doesn't negate the fact that they are working. And even if they need to be done slower, there is value in them.